Why Too Much HIIT Is Killing Your Progress

...And How You Can Incorporate Intense Training For Maximum Results

HIIT workouts are EVERYWHERE. From Barry’s on the east coast to Orange Theory on the West Coast. Think those combo treadmill/dumbbell workouts are it though? Soul Cycle and Flywheel are the HIIT of cycling. In most cases, your neighborhood hot yoga class is probably an HIIT workout more than it is an ancient mobility practice. The magazines and the Instagram fit-pros pretty much deal in nothing else. And oh yes, Crossfit is an HIIT workout too. 

There are multiple reasons to explain why  HIIT training has become the new go-to workout. But, they aren't what you might think.

HIIT training is (on first glance) accessible. It’s what we call in the industry low-barrier-of-entry. Don't be fooled, though. That does not mean that the workouts are easy. Decidedly the opposite is true. What it means to boutique fitness is that instructors can pack a class in a relatively small space with dozens of bodies and minimal equipment. And similarly for the IG stars and fitness editors, they can provide a workout that followers can perform in their living rooms without registering for a class. 

HIIT also fits our deeply engrained ideas of what an effective workout is. We believe that training should be ALWAYS be hard. It should leave you feeling spent, sweaty, and sore, right? This assumption is not true. But HIIT checks all those boxes we’re tempted to tick. 

But wait! Isn’t HIIT so popular because it’s good for fat-loss???

Well, yes. Of course it can be. But any new and novel training style will result in initially favorable fat-loss. And HIIT certainly has it’s place as PART of a well rounded fitness regimen. But as most things go, too much of anything is too much. 

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And that too much - that high level of intense acute stress can turn into chronic stress that threatens your health and sabotages your success.

Now anecdotally, you may have already come to this conclusion on your own without knowing exactly why. You want to lose fat but no matter how much you increase your effort, you seem to have plateaued. And you’re supposed to be getting strong, but in fact you’re realizing more aches and pains than when you started.

So why does progress seem to reverse when you’re working out hard? And how can you incorporate HIIT into your program with favorable results? Those successful studies on the multitude of benefits must have some merit, yes?

Well, I went to my friend Justin to get some clarity on this very complicated and potentially frustrating issue. Justin Janoska is a clinical nutritionist and coach who helps women facing autoimmune disorders turn their lives around. He is an expert when it comes to hormones. And that’s what we spent much of our time chatting about.

It All Depends On Stress And Hormones

You see, different types of workouts elicit different hormonal responses. And workouts that are super stressful, just like life situations that are super stressful, temporarily cause a spike in cortisol. This acute elevation isn’t bad as you might have heard. Chronically elevated cortisol is a problem though.  It’s persistent and prolonged bouts of stress that result in excess cortisol and subsequent belly fat buildup.

“Hormones dictate your ability to lose weight before calories can even be spoken about,” says Justin. “If abnormal cortisol and thyroid hormones levels are present, no amount of caloric restriction or deficit will push the needle.”

This is why consistent under-eating and frequent hard workouts may have little or no effect on your ability to make physique progress. 

What’s even more startling is that this particular kind of hormone dyregulation can result in digestive havoc and induce cognitive changes in your brain - i.e. giving you problems like IBS, depression, and a multitude of autoimmune disorders that seem unrelated.

“It literally puts the kabosh on any chance of weight loss because the body is too preoccupied with overcoming the challenges. Bionergetically, its shifting towards immune function and inflammation, which is costly in energy requirement.” says Justin. Think of it like going into fight or flight-mode. Basic body functions gets under prioritized as your body struggles to adapt.

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Too little cortisol is not good either. Your training program should provide the RIGHT amount of stress, an appropriate challenge that your body can adapt to. But without any stimulus, there can be no prompted change either.

How To Incorporate HIIT Correctly

You can totally avoid the negative health effects of chronically elevated stress hormones, and find your own RIGHT amount of HIIT for the positive results you’ve read about, if you follow these simple but important guidelines.

1. Realize that HIIT is one course of the meal that is your personal fitness plan.

 And if you want to get really specific with your metaphors, consider it dessert. It’s the “use sparingly”, indulgent treat of the fitness pyramid and should be treated as such. Your training plan should be grounded in mobility and highlighted by focused strength and rhythmic cardiovascular sessions. But that doesn’t mean that Barry’s class you love to take with all your friends and your favorite instructor doesn’t belong. Fitness should be fun. Simply try scaling back to just 1 or 2 times per week.

Monitor your body’s response.

It can be difficult to know if you're pushing too hard. But you can ask yourself these guided questions: Do you feel at least 80% recovered at the beginning of each new interval? Is your heart rate back to normal by the time you get to the subway or your car? Do you sleep well that night and wake up feeling rested? Just these simple questions can start a really good inner dialogue, which Justin says is key for figuring out what works for you.

Stay conservative.

This can be tough if the prescribed parameters from the instructor are extreme to begin with. And that added pressure of class competition and having your results displayed on a huge screen can also tempt you to screw it and go beast mode. But, don’t be afraid to be that girl doing something different(this is bigger if advice too). I always recommend my lovelies begin at a 1:2 work:rest ratio. So if you have 30 second bouts of burpees, break 60 seconds. This will also allow you to crush the pace and keep the intensity high. When you can no longer recover in 60 seconds, take a longer break, switch things up, or call it.

Monitor the intensity of other stressors.

Like your emotions, job, relationships, finances, etc. Stress is stress. If the intensity in these other areas of your life is high, you may not need to add additional fuel to the fire by ending the workout in a puddle of your own sweat and starting the next day too  gassed and stiff to be productive. What’s the cost? What’s the benefit? If the benefit isn’t higher, find a less intense outlet to move your body and blow off steam. Resume when conditions improve. 

And most importantly, remember that fat-loss and fitness are about working WITH your body, not against it. 

Ready to try something new? For just $9 you can join my Holiday Challenge and get 30 days of easy, medium, and hard workouts to try training a balanced program. Plus, we'll be talking fat-loss nutrition and the science of motivation in our Facebook group. Sign up before December 1st!